Monday, 7 September 2009

A Long, Strange Trip

In the past few days Paddy and I have been to the south of Spain and back north again. You can drive from north to south in a day, but it is a killer LONG day. Spain is big. The dogs wanted very much to go, but we said No.

We visited a royal palace on Wednesday, and a harpy´s den on Friday. In between was a lonely Nepalese, a cute little blond boy, a kindly victim of her own generosity, and a tap-dancing squatter. Among and upon us all was El Sol.

The Sun was the biggest player in all the last few days. Everything that is done and not done is due to his supreme zapping power. And down south in Malaga province, he´s as big a hitter as I have ever seen.

We went Wednesday, leaving the Peaceable in the hands of Brian, a house-painter and Pittsburgh native who did a forced-march camino in August, survived, and returned.

We headed out early across the Castilian plains for Aranjuez, just south of Madrid. We got there early afternoon, and drove in circles a while trying to find our hostel. A royal palace and massive manicured gardens tend to play havoc with the flow of traffic and actual real-life humanity.

We have been to Aranjuez twice now, and have never found the palace open. National monuments here can be as hit-or-miss as banks are in the United States. But the gardens and duck ponds and courtyards were open, peppered with charming stone harpies with Belle Epoque hairdos. The grounds and buildings are very symmetrical, and we had moments of Escher-esque weirdness looking down passages and through gateways. And then we discovered the speed-metal bistro with Marilyn Monroe black-light decor and Campari with real soda, from a siphon! And then dinner at a restaurant with the döner kebab Turkish takeout downstairs, and Spanified Indian cuisine up, and the waiter from Nepal who was just dying to be our very best friend forever. And I then parked the car, legally, right outside the door of the hotel. Surreal, all of it.

The next day we drove the rest of the way down, via La Mancha and Grenada, to Malaga and the coast and finally, Torremolinos.

It is hard to write about our trips to Torremolinos without a lot of background. I know most of you are more interested in Moratinos, but sometimes we who live in Moratinos must scurry southward for a time. Part of Paddy´s family lives down there, in a raffish, sunny coastal town akin to Margate or Atlantic City. It´s in Spain, but it´s full of expatriate working-class Brits and Europeans. Its high-rise holiday rental apartments were thrown up practically overnight in the 1960s and 70s, and they were settling into a long, slow decline before The Crisis hit a year ago. Now things are starting to feel desperate.

Pensioners are seeing their monthly checks shrink as the Euro gains strength and the dollar and British pound weaken. Fewer people are taking overseas holidays. Shops and restaurants and closing earlier in the evening or the season, or are leaving town altogether. Wages are down. Beach-view balconies are festooned with "For Sale" signs.

Part of Paddy´s family owns two tiny rental apartments in Torre, bought years ago as “investment property.” We went to see one of the flats. It´s called “Aries Penthouse,” which means it´s on the topmost floor of a five-story, 60´s era complex groovily named for signs of the Zodiac. The hallways are clean, but the tiles are chipped, the lights only have half their bulbs. A full dustpan was left standing in the elevator, going up and down all day along with the tenants.

Like the rest of the apartment doors in the place, Number 512 stands behind a locked iron grill. It was occupied until last June by a scary old harpy called Mary Carmen.

The battered door swung open. The electricity was switched off, so there were no lights but the sunshine through the windows. The smell slipped over my nose and mouth like a clammy hand.

Mary Carmen left everything behind once the locks were changed, including a refrigerator full of food. That was the start of summer, right under the roof, in a beach town. The sun did its worst in that closed-up, un-air-conditioned space. I knew there had to be former cheeses in there, but I did not look. I was afraid there might be a body.

Mary Carmen apparently collected sheets, pillowcases, doilies, scarves, exotic ethnic condiments, single shoes, Portuguese holy cards, textbooks on criminal law, empty cleaning-fluid bottles, maps, magazines, costume jewelry, and ribbons from funeral wreaths, and stacked them willy-nilly into a space intended for two people and minimal belongings. The leaking roof turned the walls and ceiling black and peeled the paint from the walls, but she did not complain. When the toilet broke off the floor, she had someone repair it with a bucket of ready-mix concrete and a large chunk of what might be asphalt. The kitchen shelves and cooker and counter apparently fell to earth years ago, along with the built-in closets and light fittings. But when you owe tens of thousands in back rent, and the sheriff´s eviction notices are layered on the front door, you don´t ask for too much maintenance.

The roof was repaired a few months ago. But what remains is mildew, neglect, and about 16 tons of useless junk.

We came to Torre this week because Paddy and I are considering buying this place. We thought it may be a win-win situation, a way to help ease the load on the family down south, while gaining for ourselves a little bolt-hole, a warm, English-speaking place to curl up in the winter and also provide a beach getaway for family and friends who need a break. But this...? I could feel how hard this was for Jo, the relative who showed it to us. She´s a big-hearted woman, overwhelmed by grasping people, the language, smell, wreckage, and many years of loss.

And the heat. I felt ill. We gathered up a stack of unopened bills, snapped some photos, and fled.

We sat down at a cafe and gathered our wits. We found a builder who will empty out the place next week. (Will he use a shovel, or a fire hose?) Once the walls and floors are visible, then he can determine what work must be done to return the place to habitability.

Then we will decide what to do. Part of me wants to bolt. Another part knows we can´t just leave things this way.

Oh, the tap-dancer is another of the family tenants, the American woman downstairs in Aries. She speaks fluent New Jersey but says that is just because she´s Jewish -- she´s really from California. The cute little boy is Sam, our "Spanish" grandson, a little O´Gara who is very much a two-year-old these days. He rules his family with a sticky lollipop fist, but does it all so charmingly you hardly notice until he´s gone to bed and the silent, cool evening breeze blows across the patio and the wine is poured.

The moon is shockingly bright down there. The sea is lapis blue. The fish-and-chips are tip-top, and we can buy pork and beans, fig newtons, cheddar, dog chewies, Valdepeñas Reserva, and kippers, all kinds of things you can´t find up here in Palencia. Sam is there, and his parents, and his grandma Jo, all of them beloved. And that bright bright sun, so fine in winter, and so utterly smiting and stultifying in September.

We talked it all over on the long drive back, and I think we have a plan.
Next time we go, though, I think we will take the train.


Laura said...

Wow! Can't wait for "the rest of the story" on this adventure. Sounds overwhelming and defeating, and exciting and full of possibility. Your mention of Atlantic City brought back a rush of memories from my childhood - before the casinos and before anyone had heard of Donald Trump. Back in the days of boardwalk strolling, and salt water taffy, a horse that dove off the pier and Mr. Peanut who would hug kids and no one wondered if he was a pervert! Sorry - I digress. Anyhow, sounds like an interesting time at the "shore."

Anonymous said...

every day i look forward to your blog, glad you posted. No matter how things are going in my life, I look forward to your posts as either a ray of sunshine, dose of sanity, or just escapism!

Anonymous said...

Run for your life! I understand the pull of a vacation house, wanting to be close to family, a nice bolt-hole in the sun in the winter. But the 1960s were a nototiously rotten time in building and those buildings, that were mostly built to last 30 years or less, are falling down all over the world. It'll be a black hole. You've been through rehab beforew--remember? And that was when you had the whole building--this time you'd be at the mercy of the other owners if anything--like foundations, roof--went bad, you'd all have to agree. . . maybe you could find another place, older or newer /

M.A. said...

You spent a whole afternoon in my HOMETOWN and I didn't notice!!
I see you liked MY garden (the small one with the weird-hairdo harpies). ;)

Anonymous said...

Wow, she sounds like the missing Collier sister to me. I'd pass on the apartment, but I'm not you!


Anonymous said...


Let's discuss this in the cool evenings on the Camino San Salvador, Reb...

I do understand the lure of a lovely WARM place in the winter...

can't wait to see you two...and the indominitable Una,


Anonymous said...

Hi! I´m a pilgirm in Terradillos de los Templarios... just wondering if you are hosting people tonight. My sister and I had heard of your home and thought of maybe walking three more km today to get there. But after so many adventures you are probably tired! :)
I jsut sent this thinking you might be online! :)
-Sonja said...

come on over if you´re still interested. we are a bit fried by the sun, but we can put you up.


Virginia ("Ginn") said...

I love taking the train...8-)


claire bangasser said...

A sign of a good vacation is the pleasure of being back.
Torremolinos + extended family sounds like an awful combo to me. But then, I'm odd :-)